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Building resilience in the South West’s woodlands

Lobaria scrobiculata, a rare Lobarion lichen often found on ash (c) Dave Lamacraft, Plantlife

Together with our partners, we now have a better understanding of the action needed to safeguard some of our rarest and most threatened lichens and bryophytes thanks to a project to increase resilience in the temperate rainforest of Devon, Somerset and Cornwall.

The initiative saw Plantlife work with partners, woodland owners and local communities to make the South West’s rainforest more resilient to change, better understood and fully celebrated as part of the region’s natural heritage.

The project, which was backed by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, marked its final year in 2021/22 by delivering action which will leave a lasting legacy.

New understanding and skillsets

Volunteers have played a significant role in developing our understanding of the rainforest, contributing more than 1,500 hours to surveying and monitoring. A total of 300 sites were also surveyed as part of our Rapid Rainforest Assessment (RRA), which was designed to give a snapshot of the state of the rainforest while providing new insights into management challenges and priority areas for conservation.

An intensive training programme gave 21 dedicated volunteers across Devon and Cornwall the chance to develop specialist bryophyte identification skills, before going on to survey sites flagged as being of potential interest through the RRA. As a result, 15 new sites with records of conservation importance have been identified, while we have a better understanding of the condition of many more.

A group of volunteers, land managers and woodland owners on Exmoor also completed a lichen training programme and carried out monitoring to assess the impact of management at two key sites for rare lobarion lichens. These skills will enable them to contribute to long-term monitoring to better understand management impacts on lichens.

Plagiochila spinulosa – leafy liverwort indicator of temperate rainforest, found at a new site by a New Generation Botanist trainees (c) Barbara Swinfen
New Generation Botanist bryophyte trainees (c) Kate Hind

Urgent action for rare and threatened lichens

Alongside our National Trust partners, we pioneered an innovative approach to mitigate the impact of ash dieback, which is threatening rare rainforest lichens.

Taking place at Horner Wood on Exmoor, the initiative saw us:

  • increase resilience by improving conditions for lichens to aid natural colonisation
  • retain lichens on diseased ash through tree surgery such as monolithing, and
  • translocate rare species to suitable alternative hosts as a last resort.

Similar methods were also adopted at Lydford Gorge, a National Trust site on Dartmoor which was identified as internationally significant for its lobarion lichens as a result of the RRA. This approach is being rolled out across the National Trust’s estate and by other conservation agencies to mitigate the impact of ash dieback nationally.

A ‘resilient rainforest’ network of land managers

Although one of the defining features of internationally important temperate rainforest is the diverse assemblages of lichens and bryophytes, there is often a lack of understanding about how to assess, manage and monitor them. Our resilient rainforest training package helped address this by offering sessions on identification, monitoring and management to land managers, woodland owners and advisors working in the region. A total of 98 people received the training, attending an average of six sessions each.

As a woodland owner, I really welcomed the opportunity to take part in the training with Plantlife specialists. Their support and networking with other volunteers and managers has been invaluable and will inform the thinking about future management of these ancient landscapes.

Carol, woodland owner in the Exmoor and Quantock Hills Important Plant Area

We also held three ‘managing the rainforest in action’ days to save some of the most important lichen communities in the country at sites where the project has delivered innovative conservation work. The events invited participants to explore approaches to ash dieback mitigation, halo-thinning and managing veteran trees for the benefit of rare and threatened lichens and bryophytes.

The information days were arranged alongside our partners at Woodland Trust, Natural England, National Trust and Exmoor National Park Authority.

Image credits: Header image - Dave Lamacraft, image 2 - Kate Hind, image 3 - Barbara Swinfen, image 4 - Rachel Jones

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